Anxiety and Productivity

Employers understand the impact of mental health on their employees at a macro level but it seems that many do not truly understand the effect it has on the business bottom line. The root cause of anxiety is irrelevant to the impact on workplace productivity. Allow me to break this complex situation into words that are relevant to a manager or business owner. At its very core, anxiety is simply fear, it is often irrational fear but that doesn’t matter to the “lizard brain” as psychologists refer to it. I vividly recall my talented psychologist providing a simple explanation, forgive me Gill for my paraphrasing but this is what I got out of it:

Our world has changed remarkably, in the past 50 years.  The pace, the constant stimulation, checking emails at all hours of the day and fear of switching off are all having an impact on our mental health.  Our brains have not had the time to evolve.  The human brain cannot tell the difference between an email with unexpected news shocking us and a Sabre Tooth Tiger trying to attack us.  The initial release of adrenaline to provide the energy to the body to get out of the situation and the subsequent release of cortisol to keep the body “revved up and on high alert” is the same, and our bodies react in exactly the same way.  When someone is in a state of anxiety their brains are screaming “get me out of here!” and they find it difficult to calm down and focus on anything for too long.

In a workplace, an employee working with anxiety can easily be mistaken for someone who is not coping with the workload, is disorganised or is not “cut out for the job”.  Ironically it is the worker who takes the most pride in their work that may fall prey to this spiral.

 It is your best employees or your highest performers are at greatest  risk of feeling anxious in the workplace.  The reason for this is that they are the ones that really care (you are not going to find a narcissist worried about making a mistake) and get given more work because they are known as people who get things done. However, even the busy productive person has a breaking point, where they can no longer handle the stress, this threshold will be higher for them because they used to performing at the higher level of stress and it is normalised.

Busy people may be caught up into thinking that the “mind racing - going million miles an hour to get everything done” is just healthy stress – but this is in fact anxiety.  Once they get to the point that you “don’t know where to start”, “can’t focus on what is needed to be done” and are unable to think through priorities, they are not present and focused on one task and this is when it can look to colleagues that this person is disorganized. This is what anxiety in the workplace looks like.

There is stigma attached to anxiety and high performers do not want to be seen as weak. In addition, these high performers might not even be aware that they are suffering from anxiety it can go undiagnosed for many years. They will not want to admit that they have a problem or ask for help but it is important to remember that it is not the individual that has the problem it is a symptom of the situation that they find themselves in.

They will keep going, because they are resilient, and they are used to persevering but inevitably at some point there is a crack and it gets too much.  At that point they will either quit or work on the exit strategy. Then the company has lost the high performers because of the situation that the organisation created.

The high performers are the one who know that they can get another job if they need to. The mediocre performers are more likely to “go with the flow and take home the dough” and be a passenger in the organisation. Allowing a high performer to struggle with anxiety will ultimately result in them leaving the organisation - the greatest loss of productivity. Recognizing anxiety in the workplace and putting mechanisms in place to reduce the burden on your high performers will enhance the organisation’s productivity.

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